`Pescado' agent jailed for manslaughter

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The Independent Online
WILL BENNETT

The managing agent of the ill-fated trawler Pescado, which sank in 1991 with the loss of its six crew, was yesterday jailed for three years for manslaughter.

Joseph O'Connor, 44, was told by Mr Justice Mantell at Bristol Crown Court that no other form of sentence would be appropriate.

The prosecution had alleged that O'Connor, from Plymouth, had sent the novice crew of the Pescado to sea in an unseaworthy boat without proper safety equipment.The radio did not work, there was no satellite alert beacon and the life-raft was useless.

The jury acquitted O'Connor - who once ran a fleet of Spanish-owned fishing vessels out of West Country ports - of six charges of manslaughter which specified the crew members who died and alleged that the vessel was unseaworthy and unstable. But he was found guilty of a seventh, alternative, charge of manslaughter, which was added during the trial.

This alleged the manslaughter of a person unknown, a member of the Pescado crew, and said that O'Connor had breached a duty of care.

O'Connor, who pleaded not guilty to all charges, said he would appeal against conviction.

During the trial his co-defendant Alan Ayres, 56, also from Plymouth, was acquitted of six charges of manslaughter on the directions of the judge. Mr Ayres was described as a de facto director of the company which owned the Pescado.

The vessel sank off Dodman Point, south Cornwall, in February 1991. The wreck was raised in September 1993 as part of a police investigation. The crew who died were Neil Currie, 28, the skipper, from South Uist; Jo-Ann Thomas, 23, his fiancee, from Plymouth; Peter Birley, 34, from Fleetwood; Adrian Flynn, 21, from Lincoln; Steven Hardy, 30, from Plymouth; and Sean Kelly, 17, from Brixham.

In his heyday, O'Connor was known as "Champagne Joe" in the clubs and bars of Plymouth. His money had come from his association with Spanish fishermen who were exploiting a loophole in protection laws which allowed them to fish in UK waters if they sailed under the British flag. He acted as their managing agent.

The Spaniards paid him well and he was able to buy his own boats, but his income was cut off in 1988 when the Government passed a law preventing foreign registration in Britain. The ban was overturned by the European Court but within a year O'Connor had gone bankrupt.

In 1988, one of his companies was fined pounds 7,500 for owning an unsafe vessel, and, in 1989, he was jailed for two months for contempt of court after admitting hiding money and documents from the receiver appointed to manage the firm.

Police found that his web of companies stretched to Dubai, and that he had been involved in the phoney purchase of a ship to defraud Commercial Union Capital of a pounds 360,000 loan - an offence for which he received a two-year jail sentence.

Mr Ayres, his fellow defendant, knew little about the business. He invested more than pounds 50,000 in a company which bought the Pescado and agreed to pay to have it converted to a scallop fisher. The prosecution said the result was an unstable vessel which was sent on fishing trips without a Department of Transport safety certificate.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch believes Pescado may have turned over after snagging equipment on the sea-bed. During the trial, the defence said it might have been struck by a submarine. The truth will probably never be known.

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